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Alexandria: The City that Changed the World

January 24, 2024 at 11:15 am

Alexandria: The City that Changed the World
  • Book Author(s): Islam Issa
  • Published Date: November 2023
  • Publisher: Sceptre
  • Hardback: 496 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781529377583

“Alexandria,” said Napoleon Bonaparte of the ancient Egyptian city, “more so than Rome, Constantinople, Paris, London, Amsterdam; would have been, and was meant to be, the head of the universe.” A glimpse of the splendour, grandeur and momentous history of the Mediterranean city is captured in Islam Issa’s new book Alexandria: The City that Changed the World.

Even though it is one of the greatest cities in the Middle East, Alexandria is usually overshadowed by Cairo. The Egyptian capital is referred to as “the mother of the world”, and some Egyptians who don’t live there and go to visit will sometimes say that they are going to Masr or Egypt instead of saying Cairo. However, to treat Cairo as the centre of the Egyptian universe is to miss how vital other parts of Egypt are, and none are as crucial as Alexandria. So, move over Cairo, it’s Alexandria’s turn in the limelight.

The coastal city was pivotal to the development of modern Egypt.

During the British occupation of the country at the end of the First World War, it was Alexandria that witnessed mass protests and the revolution which heralded in the Egyptian nationalist movement. The British parliament received this alarming report in May 1921: “Alexandria is practically in a state of insurrection; the police forces are not functioning and the foreign inhabitants have sent an urgent telegram to Lord Allenby asking for the despatch of further British troops.”

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As Issa points out, nationalism was not the only issue brewing in Alexandria; women’s rights were too. Women’s activism exploded during the British occupation and all strands of society were involved in the movement. A key reason why women were so active in Alexandria was that they enjoyed greater social freedom there. The founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Huda Sharawi, observed that in Alexandria she and her friends could go shopping for clothes by themselves, sunbathe and go for seaside walks, enjoying social freedom not found anywhere else in Egypt. It inspired her to push for the normalisation of such freedom across the country. Interestingly, Alexandria was not only a hub of feminist activism, but also the first place to have a feminist newspaper published in Arabic.

Perhaps it was fated that Alexandria should lead the way. The city was founded by the Greco-Macedonian leader Alexander the Great. The author shares an anecdote from ancient Greek writer Plutarch about the man after whom the city is named: “As Alexander finished his design on the ground, a flock of birds appeared from the horizon and descended onto the grain, all but devouring it. Alexander was startled and confused, but was quickly assured by those around him. This was a sign that the city would ‘be the nurse and feeder of many nations.’”

As Issa points out, though, “The new city’s name was Alexandria by Egypt — not Alexandria in Egypt.” Indeed, Alexander was unsure whether the city was too far from what was traditionally regarded as Egypt to be classed as part of the same land. He was also unsure whether he truly held the country. “More simply, it demonstrates how Alexandria was to be its own capital.”

Alexandria would see many important figures pass through; it was the city of Cleopatra, after all. It was also home to the famed Great Library, which sought to have acquired every book published in the known world, and by the first century BC had an estimated 700,000 to one million books. It was a centre of learning, trade and politics, and had a diverse population. All of this left its mark. Even today, on New Year’s Day every year, for example, Alexandrians will usher in the upcoming 12 months by throwing a piece of glass or pottery from their balconies onto the ground below. As it shatters, so does any bad luck. This is something that the people have adapted from the city’s ancient Jewish community.

Alexandria… is a sweeping narrative-based history that takes us from its ancient Greek origins, along Roman, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Ottoman, French and British streets until we end up in modern Egypt. We are not only treated to important figures in history and their interaction with the city, but we also learn about the role of different communities in the city’s history, and gain a sense of how a city can have multiple identities. The narrative put together by Islam Issa is fascinating, delightful and invigorating. Readers cannot fail to be charmed and enchanted by Alexandria. All urban histories should emulate this book in order to do their subject cities justice.

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